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Speculative Physics

Seeds of Enlightenment

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Jan 30,2004


Seeds of Enlightenment

Holistic game design is an approach to game design which is based on scientific model building. In science, a theory is developed iteratively, testing and revising to more closely match the reality. In holistic game design these same tests and revisions occur on both sides of the design equation, changing system to better match the setting, and changing setting to better match the system. The result is a game with a very strong relationship between system and setting.

Earlier I requested a seed to start a holsitic design process, in order to do a full holistic design in this column. Malcom in the forum suggested the following setting, "a game where characters pass through various mental or psychological states attempting to reach enlightenment (or other states)."

Step 1 - Find a Metaphysical Graph Structure

(Setting -> System)

In the second article on Mathematics of Game Design, I described the graph finite structure. This structure is a collection of points, called vertices, connected by lines, called edges. Graphs can easily be used as a map of states and the paths between them. This makes them a desirable structure to describe the different metaphysical states of the setting and the ways that characters move between them. The first step of the holistic design is to find a graph structure to use for this purpose.

A primary concern in adding a finite structure to an RPG design is the accessibility of the structure. This is especially true if the structure will be used frequently in the game. Players should not be forced to perform complex mathematics or learn complex structures to play the game. Rather the structure used should be made simple or at least be simple for the player to use.

One way to do this is to use a regular structure, like a grid, or a fractal structure, where each level is made up of structures of the same pattern as the top level. The advantage of this method is that it is fairly simple to represent these graphs without using a complete picture. A grid can simply be broken down into its coordinates, analogous to what many games do with metaphysical qualities already. A fractal can be represented by a value at each level, much like an address having very broad location and focusing down to the narrowest. The disadvantage of this approach is that these structures are still very simple, and so are unlikely to present many interesting states by themselves. Also, in this case intermediate states are too similar, making the particular state the character is in, primarily relevant because of its proximity or lack there of to a destination.

Another way to provide accessibility is to make the graph something which is present as part of the game. This allows significantly more complexity in the graph, but for simplicity of play means that the character sheet shouldn't contain too much besides the graph. The simplest solution is to provide a sample graph on the character sheet. Alternatively different graphs could be used for each game, and even for each character. This would require a very large supply of dissimilar graphs. Fortunately such a supply is available, road maps.

Considering the options, and looking for a more novel solution to the problem I decided to use road maps as the central graph structure of the game. It also seemed appropriate since roads, maps, and ways are often associated with both enlightenment and damnation.

Step 2 - What Do the Map Features Mean?

(System -> Setting)

There are several different features you can find on most road maps:

Each of these features could describe the metaphysical setting of the character using the map. Going through each I related the features to elements of the metaphysical journey.

The routes on the map which have associated symbols or numbers are typically the fastest routes on the map, by passing many intersections and usually extending for a significant distance. In a metaphysical sense these are the spiritual fast lanes, paths that will rapidly reach new states. Typically these sorts of paths come with a cost, a requirement or a sacrifice in order to travel them. In this case it makes sense to like each route number or symbol with a requirement, and roads with multiple numbers have multiple such requirements, after all the best spiritual route to travel is often the hardest.

Many maps have large areas which are shaded or simply open, because they are parks, hospitals, universities, etc. Most of these areas are places that can be avoided, where the normal road structure is changed or each missing entirely. These are the wilderness of the map, where conventional rules cease to apply. In metaphysical terms these are places to be tested, and places to wander in search of guidance. When a character is within these places they are undergoing a spiritual quest, the outcome of which is ultimately be in doubt. The quest allows passage, but it may also provide some other gift, some reason for the wilds to be sought.

Political boundaries on a map typically mark out regions, whether they be nations, states, counties, or townships. This segmentation of the map tries to ascribe some property to each of these regions. In the spiritual interpretation the same is also true. The current region of the character represents a larger category of states, whether it be sainthood, enlightenment, ignorance, or fear.

Physical boundaries, like rivers, ridges, and canals, are boundaries in a more direct sense. A river must be crossed, but a metaphysical river has an important meaning. Each boundary of this type is a challenge which must be met or the character is unable to cross. This spiritual toll can take many forms, but must be paid.

The geographic directions are a useful way to describe global trends in the map. This makes them ideal for spiritual directions, like piety, honor, and lust. These directions help guide the overall travel of the character.

The different map names have little consistent pattern, so it is difficult to consistently relate them to any aspect of the metaphysical journey. However they can provide inspiration for the details, but there doesn't need to be any connection.

The natural extension of the road leading off the map is that the spiritual journey has progressed beyond the ken of the game, now the character has reached his or her destination, intended or not. Combined with the geographic directions these destinations help suggest where the character is going, and where the character is trying to get away from.

Most special road types are related to route numbers or shaded areas. Because of how those were handled there is no need to incorporate these difference into the setting any further.

Step 3 - What Describes a Character?

(Setting -> System)

Since the road map of a character describes the character's metaphysical nature, all that remains to describe the character is to describe the physical abilities (which in this case means in the physical world). Because the map is such a significant part of the character, I wanted even these abilities should stem from the map, if possible. One way to break down this part of the design is to consider the past, present, and future elements of the character.

There are two natural elements of a character's past which can be taken directly from the map. First is the quests and challenges overcome in the spiritual journey. Second is the directions the character has traveled in the map. These directions occur frequently enough to be treated as ratings of physical ability themselves based on the meaning of the directions.

The character's present contains two elements as well. First, the current metaphysical region of the character. Second, the spiritual requirements which are met, allowing passage along the metaphysical highways. Both of these could be very mechanical, or simply descriptive.

Lastly, the character's future has two elements. First, the directions of the map determine how the character can change. Second, the destinations provide goals for the character. In both of these cases these elements are better treated as descriptive, saving the firm mechanics for when the directions are traveled.

Next Month: The Road Once Traveled

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